Grace under pressure?
How effective have high-risk media events been for French foreign policy?
Emmanuel Macron’s dash to Beirut on 6 August in the aftermath of the catastrophic explosion in its port will surely count as the politico-media event of 2020. Bathing in the crowd of grateful Christians in the hardest hit district of the Lebanese capital, the French President in immaculately pressed shirtsleeves looked like one of those Gallic film stars whose glamour is fading.
By putting the responsibility on the Lebanese political class to reform itself before handing over relief money, the French President earned all the moral kudos of acting as the saviour of the de-housed of Beirut without paying a price – yet. Macron promised to return by the start of September to see how far reforming the Lebanese elite has got. It remains to be seen what euphoria will remain to greet him then.
Macron is not the first French President to master the mix of media-savvy and political risk involved in interposing himself into a chaotic or violent situation. Think of General de Gaulle’s masterly handling of his march down the Champs Elysées seventy-five years ago as the Parisian crowds swarmed to celebrate their liberation and German snipers still tried to spoil the party: he was at the focal point of the newsreel cameras.
Media events are often assumed to be an American invention. Certainly, analysts like Daniel Boorstin and Marshal McLuhan popularised the concept in the English-speaking world in the 1960s, but as with moving pictures themselves, the French have a fair claim to being first in the field.
What distinguishes the Gallic media event from the Anglo-Saxon variety is what would now be called its “edginess”. The risk-free staged events which pock-mark English-speaking election campaigns, with ordinary voters let alone hecklers rigorously excluded, entirely lack the risk of derailment which French Presidents have repeatedly excelled at introducing into their media spectacles.
Donald Trump’s use of riot police to clear a path through Lafayette Square to Washington’s oldest Episcopal church in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests on 1 June was the nearest that a US politician has come to the French model – but sadly, the police efforts meant that not only were the BLM folk dispersed with a whiff of tear gas, but there was no grateful crowd of MAGA counter-protestors to greet the American President just his rather awkward-looking cabinet and the odd general, who hurried to make excuses for their presence afterwards. Not a successful look.
‘Grace under pressure’ was JFK’s term for the look a politician needed in a crisis situation
“Grace under pressure” was John Kennedy’s term for the look a politician needed in a crisis situation. It is not easily acquired, particularly if events look as though they might spiral out of media-management. Think back to Benghazi on 15 September 2011. Then, while Muammar Gaddafi was still lurking in Sirte, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, spent almost four minutes on stage alongside David Cameron in a still chaotic Benghazi praising the Libyan “youth” for its uprising. The French President hailed the rebirth of “liberty” – what used to be called anarchy – in Libya. The brevity of the Western statesmen’s public appearance underlined the dangers of going there. After three minutes and forty seconds an open microphone caught Sarkozy saying to the British prime minister who was still waving to the gun-toting youth, “David, let’s go.” That suggestion, however, somewhat undercut the reassuring message about Libya’s prospects which both now fallen politicians hoped to spread.
That recent fiasco might have been a warning to Macron, but other French Presidents would have offered more upbeat role models.
As a teenager, Emmanuel Macron’s precocious political nostrils must have twitched when President Mitterrand descended on a beleaguered Sarajevo on that ominous Balkan date, 28 June in 1992. Mitterrand was showing solidarity with the Bosnian Muslims besieged in the city where Gavrilo Princip had shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand exactly seventy-eight years earlier. With sniper fire commonplace, Mitterrand was exposing himself both to the risk of a stray bullet and to the television cameras catching it. Live coverage of an elderly Mitterrand emerging from an APC after driving down Sniper’s Alley added to the allure.
In a way it was the veteran anti-Gaullist’s revenge on the General. Mitterrand’s political career began on the far right in pre-war France. His chequered career saw him serve Vichy, before being born again after 1945 as a hardline Interior Minister repressing Algerians in the mid-1950s, only to be re-born again as the reviver of the French Socialist Party and gadfly critic of de Gaulle’s “permanent coup d’état”, the constitution of the Fifth Republic. Only finally in 1981 on his election as president did Mitterrand discover that de Gaulle’s political model and style fitted him like a glove, including his media management.
However eye-catching and inspiring a high-risk media event may be, its shelf-life is short
Charles de Gaulle’s political vision now seems as remote as Gladstone’s does to us, yet the tall, aloof, ineffably French officer was in practice a politician determined to be ruthlessly up to date (as was Gladstone). In 1960, his dismissal of nostalgia for the French Empire, which he admitted he had been brought up to serve, as more stupid than wanting to revert to sail in an age of steam, marked his break with the French Army which had brought him back to power in 1958. “No policy is worth anything if it is outside reality”, he told a television audience at one of his famous broadcasts direct from the Elysée which enabled him to reach direct over the heads of the political and media classes to the French people.
Of course, Charles de Gaulle’s political career began with a media event. On 18 June 1940, an obscure French Lieutenant-General turned himself into the leader of resistance to German occupation by making a radio speech from London when he had perhaps a dozen active supporters at most, probably only a few thousand listeners in France. De Gaulle pioneered the use of television as a political medium in France. His domination of the medium was helped by the reality that only state television existed, but de Gaulle understood how to reach into people’s homes and to fix in so many French citizens’ minds his interpretation of events.
But it was his public presence – taller than any other statesman next to him, let alone the despised pygmy politicians of the Fourth Republic – which de Gaulle marketed with such skill.
De Gaulle’s apotheosis came early in his career on 26 August. Then he asked his bodyguards to step a little aside so that everyone – especially the cameramen – would have a clear view of him leading the liberation of Paris “by itself” – no mention of the tactfully off-stage GIs and Tommies. But like an opera diva’s farewell concerts, de Gaulle could not resist re-staging that drama. His willingness to brave a sniper’s bullet was in evidence after he returned to the presidency in May 1958. He flew to Algiers on 4 June and bathed in the adulation of a crowd of French colonists, assuring them, “I have understood you.”
In fact, de Gaulle had never liked the European settlers there since they had supported Vichy against him and what he soon showed was that he had seen through them! His willingness to grant independence to Algeria provoked an attempted coup by the generals enraged to discover that the President did not share their blinkered devotion to Algerie française. In response, De Gaulle showed that he had mastered the new medium of the transistor radio to reach over their officers’ heads to address ordinary soldiers in Algeria directly. At the same time, he broadcast from the Elysée pointedly noting, “If I have put on my uniform today to address you on television, it is in order to show that General de Gaulle who speaks as well as the Head of State.”
The coup collapsed but spawned a terrorist underground fictionalised realistically in Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal. The contract killer hired to assassinate de Gaulle contradicts the paymaster of the General’s mortal enemies when he remarks that he will working completely alone, “Not completely. One will have the cooperation of De Gaulle. He won’t listen to his security service and he’s not the sort of person to stay out of the public eye, is he?”
Old age weakened de Gaulle’s grip on reality. In late July 1967, emotion rather than calculation gripped the French President as he stood on the balcony of Montreal ’s city hall and was cheered by a francophone crowd below. His famous shout of “Vive le Quebec” followed by the pointed “Vive le Quebec libre!” probably sparked the emergence of the separatist Parti Quebecois in Canada but it marked a loss of touch with political reality and diplomatic sense. His emotional behaviour was a sharp break with his normal dignified, aloof approach at public events. He left the country early and less than a year later faced the crisis of his presidency during the demonstrations of May 1968.
That month saw his dramatic helicopter flight to Germany to meet General Massu, the victor of the Battle of the Kasbah ten years earlier, was a sign of panic rather than political calculation. As De Gaulle sought military support against his domestic critics, his Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, showed it was unnecessary by organising a mega bourgeois counterdemonstration in Paris which dwarfed the students’ numbers and set in train the end of the crisis and Pompidou’s succession to the presidency in 1969.
However eye-catching and inspiring a high-risk media event may be, its shelf-life is short. Like any drug, the dose needs to be repeated and increased both on the audience and the politician if its effect is to remain potent. But even then, it soon wears off.
For an active politician it is little comfort to be told that their image will be immortalised and revived in public memory after a brief dip following their defeat, retirement or death. Think of the countless mid-nineteenth century prints of Napoleon at the start of the Hundred Days walking alone towards the army sent to arrest him and challenging them to shoot their emperor and provoking the mutiny which carried him to Paris – and then Waterloo. De Gaulle was humiliated by the voters in 1969 but now it is the liberator of Paris in 1944 who is immortal, the media event has an afterlife if it has real drama however carefully staged it might have been. Politicians themselves, however, only live once.
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